There was a brief photo-op with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a few formalities from U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a hug and then an oath.
The whole affair took less than half an hour. And just like that, Karen Handel made Georgia history, becoming the state’s first Republican congresswoman.
Monday evening’s events on the House floor were a coda, an end to the state’s omnipresent 6th Congressional District contest, the most expensive U.S. House race of all time and certainly one of the hardest fought.
Handel ended it at a microphone, quipping to her 400-plus new colleagues, “I’m not sure you’ve heard enough about this particular race.”
“This is an extraordinary honor and the greatest privilege that I think I have ever had,” she said in a brief introductory speech, “and I look forward to serving the people of the 6th District, to serving the people of Georgia and to being a good co-worker and friend to each and every one of you.”
The event capped off a whirlwind week for Handel, who went from the campaign trail in the north Atlanta suburbs to setting up her Capitol Hill office all within a matter of days.
“I’m just trying to take it all in,” Handel said Monday in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. “It’s been a lot to absorb and we’re working real hard to get things set up so we can hit the ground running for the people.”
Because the 6th District contest was a special election, Handel must grapple with circumstances that differ from what most freshman lawmakers experience.
Since she is joining the House midsession, she will not get to enjoy the same two-month transition and orientation period that her first-term colleagues used to hire staff and get acquainted with the office. And Handel will be stuck with leftover committee assignments that might not align with her personal interests since she’s coming in late.
But she does get two major perks that her first-term classmates did not. The first is fame. While most freshmen arrive on Capitol Hill as nameless to most outside of their constituents, the hype surrounding last week’s 6th District contest means Handel is highly visible here.
The second is office space. Handel gets to take over the relatively plush suite once occupied by her predecessor, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, instead of fending for herself in the much-dreaded freshman lottery system.
Her workspace, located off a sun-drenched corridor in the 84-year-old Longworth House Office Building, was spartan Monday afternoon as her team moved in, the wooden shelves and walls visible from the front entrance still empty. A placard outside the door read “office of the Sixth Congressional District of Georgia.”
Handel plans to commute between Washington and her longtime Roswell home on the weekends. She said she still hasn’t decided whether she will follow the same path of some of her Georgia colleagues, including fellow freshman Republican Drew Ferguson of West Point, by sleeping in her Capitol Hill office while the House is in session.
One of her most important tasks at the moment is hiring staff.
Holdovers from Price’s office had been working with constituents in a caretaking capacity even in the months after Handel’s predecessor resigned to serve in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. It’s unclear whether Handel will hire some of those aides for her staff or bring in her own people.
Handel said her top priority is playing catch-up on all the top issues before Congress, particularly the ones that have an impact on the 6th District.
“There will be plenty of time for sleeping months from now,” she said.
Several members of Georgia’s tightknit delegation have offered to help. And all nine of the state’s other Republicans stood behind Handel on the House floor as Lewis and later U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, sang her praises to the chamber.
“You’re an inspiration to all the young women throughout Georgia and throughout the country, including my two daughters,” said Graves, the state’s most-senior Republican.
The swearing in was a bipartisan affair. Lewis introduced Handel on the floor, teasing his new colleague about her Washington-area roots, having grown up in Maryland.
“So you’re returning home …” Lewis said. Handel later gave him a big hug, as she did two of the three other Democrats in the delegation who were watching from the front row.
But one Democrat was absent. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia, who once employed Jon Ossoff, Handel’s 6th .District rival, stood closer to the back of the chamber and didn’t rush to congratulate her.
Minutes later, Handel’s family and campaign staffers cheered from an upstairs viewing gallery as she cast her first vote — with an assist from U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville with the voting machine — a ‘yea’ on a veterans bill.
As Ryan posed with Handel and her family at a mock swearing-in, he joked about the strangeness of posing with a Bible and pretending to take the oath of office for a row of cameras.
“It is very weird, isn’t it?” he told the group. Handel nodded.
HANDEL’S PATH INTO OFFICE
Republican Karen Handel’s victory over Democrat Jon Ossoff in the 6th Congressional District was perhaps the nation’s most widely watched election this year. To see how that campaign evolved over the past five months, go to http://www.myAJC.com/politics.